Movie: Kato Alu Basket

Eseta Aholelei tells us about a Tongan Kato Alu Basket and its use in ritual.

© Australian Museum and Eseta Aholelei
Finton Mahony
Eseta Aholelei


This basket, it’s from Tonga. It was brought to the museum in 1904. It’s the best version of kato alu that I’ve seen, that anyone else that I know has seen. The kato alu is a ceremonial basket that’s used in weddings and funerals in Tonga, and by Tongans abroad as well.

It’s made by - made from the alu plant, or the taro vine. And it’s a long process of collecting, drying, boiling and dyeing the vine before it’s then wetted again to be woven into the basket. It’s decorated with coconut sennet fibre, or coconut husk fibre, and you can see it’s been really finely braided.I’m not sure if the darkness of the fibre is indicative of it being dyed, or if it’s just the patina because of the age. When these are presented at a wedding or a funeral ceremony they’d traditionally be filled with oils, fine oils, coconut or candlenut oils.

We still use the kato alu today, but because of its rarity and because the alu plant is only found in Eua it’s very difficult to actually get hold of. It would take, you would have to order one months and months in advance, and then you wouldn’t - they’re also quite expensive to purchase. If I bought one today it might cost me about $1500.

So there’s a modern-day version we call a kato tao and that’s a decorated basket, it can be any kind of basket, and decorated with any sorts of materials, from beads to feathers, tapa cloth, any sort of - any sort of material, depending on the creator. And instead of oils they’d be put with - filled with perfumes, any sort of Christian Dior, Chanel, whatever sorts of perfumes, to hairbrushes - anything that you think would be used by a new bride - or like a cosmetic bag if you like.

In the funeral, this would be placed at the - towards the head of the deceased, and it would be used mainly for the perfumes. So there would be a person from the deceased’s mother’s family, so a person from the maternal family, looking after the body and also spreading perfume on - not on the deceased but on the clothing and mats that are spread on top of them.

So it’s a very important and relevant item of material culture.

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Tags kato alu, basket, weaving, eseta, finton, ceremony, wedding, funeral,